Diverging Approach: Beating On

Day 2 of the Metra PTC era is just about in the books, and the rollout on the BNSF has been about as expected. The trains are going out, relatively on schedule, and there are a few classic cases of Metra shooting themselves in the foot: pretty dramatic overcrowding (which we definitely warned them would happen) and the subsequent “apology”, which was, well, we’ll just reprint it here:

Please accept our apologies for the crowded conditions on your train this morning, the first day of the BNSF Line schedule. As you probably know, this schedule revision was prompted by the needs of the new federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. In addition to adjusting the schedule for PTC, Metra and BNSF Railway made other changes to relieve overcrowding on some of the busiest trains, match the schedule to actual operating conditions and reduce bunching at a choke point near Cicero.

So far so good. But the second paragraph is where it starts to come off the rails.

Major schedule revisions are always difficult, because we know our customers are accustomed to the old schedule and will have to change their commuting habits. Metra and BNSF Railway tried our best to estimate how trains on the new schedule would be used and to assign our finite number of railcars accordingly. We know we may not have estimated correctly and some adjustments to train sizes may be needed. However, we would first please ask for your patience. Before we start making changes, we want to give customers more time to adjust to the new schedule and to make decisions on more than one day’s experience. We are monitoring the situation very closely.

Thank you for your patience and understanding, and thanks for riding Metra.

Did you catch that? I’ll repeat it and add emphasis, since we’re not known for subtlety around here.

Before we start making changes, we want to give customers more time to adjust to the new schedule and to make decisions on more than one day’s experience.

Metra’s official apology says that the new schedule was designed around expected passenger loads, the fleet was deployed based on their expected passenger loads, the expected passenger loads were apparently way off of what actually happens during commutes, and now the path forward is to wait for the passengers to figure out what other options they have. When ridership has been flat or declining and fares have been increasing steadily, maybe the best approach isn’t an official statement of “take it or leave it, this is the new normal until when or if we change the schedules.” It’s 2018: Metra’s competition is no longer just sitting in their riders’ garages; it’s also riding down the shoulders of Interstate 55 or, even more threatening, a just laptop VPN connection away.

Again, definitely not a smooth rollout, but sadly unsurprising. We did our part to sound the alarm – along with more than 2,000 other BNSF commuters – and Metra went full speed ahead anyway and here we are. The good news is that Metra will be tweaking the consists tomorrow to give the busiest morning trains more capacity, so that’s a good start.

It doesn’t change the ugly irony of advertising a schedule change with a stated secondary goal of alleviating onboard crowding and immediately getting hit with crush loads the very first morning of service (and again, that apology, woof), but it highlights an important aspect of running Metra:

This stuff is hard. And it’s thankless.

My professional philosophy as a planner is that, if I’m doing my job right, nobody notices. But if something goes wrong… well, if there are any aspiring planners out there, start growing a thick skin because you’re going to need it. (The secret is to try not to take it personally, even though angry constituents will take out their frustrations on you. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.)

Even here at this blog, I see it and hear about it. In a past post, I’ve mentioned how Metra should look to pulse scheduling during off-peak periods to better facilitate transfers, which has a net-zero change to operating budgets but dramatically increases the usefulness of Weekend Passes and the future Day Pass. However, I’m not satisfied to run a blog that says “go do this” and leave it at that; I’m working on fleshing out some exhibits and spreadsheets and doing the whole deep dive treatment. It’s a lot of work – I’ve been working on the draft in fits and starts for the last two weeks or so – but it’s worth it because this blog isn’t only meant to advocate, but also to teach and explain. The transportation wonks reading this will pick up on the concept pretty quickly, but an audience of the 50th birthday train crawl who requested a Crawl Concierge will get a lot more out of the blog post if I take the time to explain why pulse scheduling is valuable (easier transfers using a single ticket!), why Metra doesn’t do it now (history of multiple railroad companies that didn’t share a fare structure before the RTA era, historically not considering suburb-to-suburb trips, institutional inertia, etc.), and how easy it would be to roll out (probably pretty easy, since the only change would be having crew layovers be at the outer terminals instead of downtown).

But even something like pulse scheduling gets a mixed reaction from readers: the Old Guard railroaders clutch their pearls and come up with excuses why it can’t or shouldn’t be done, while the hardcore activists complain that I’m not going all-in on through-routing instead. Horseshoe theory at work.

And that’s just what I have to deal with as one person who runs a site and blog with a goal of getting more people to use suburban transit and likewise nudging suburban transit providers to improve service. My recommendations don’t really carry a lot of weight and I understand that. This blog is meant for comment and discussion, not for carrying out policy (although we wouldn’t mind if some of our ideas got picked up!).

Then there’s Metra. Metra has to deal with all the same stuff this blog deals with, just at higher stakes: the old-school railroad mentality still is the dominant paradigm; staff has to deal with all the freight railroads, the politics of the region, and Metra’s own board; and the delightful social media users who forget that there’s a real-live person reading all those Facebook and Twitter posts that get way too personal. (Seriously, I know the social media person there, they’re cool, cut them some slack.) What’s worse is that this is probably Metra’s most feared result: not ridership loss – although that’s still important – but negative media attention, which ultimately we fear will make the railroad even more risk-averse when it comes to trying new things.

Probably not helpful feedback.

Again: this stuff isn’t easy. But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, and very often the hardest thing to do is to take a risk. Execution aside, Metra took a risk with the schedule modifications for the BNSF and tried to make positive changes. They didn’t do a great job of it and the Old Guard mentality was still alive and well throughout the process, but it still represented a pretty significant (if not dramatic) shift in the corporate mentality.

And that brings me back around to explaining why I keep tilting at windmills/pissing into the wind/pick your futile-effort metaphor. Everything here is a labor of love, from this blog to the Weekend Guides to the system map to our Star:Line Social outings and our Crawl Concierge service. It’s time-consuming, it’s challenging, and honestly it’s frustrating from time to time. But I do it because I honestly believe that the work I do makes something easier for someone else, and that’s my part in driving positive change in the suburbs. There are really no suburban transit advocates in our region, and there’s no way we can be successful if we half-ass the effort.

On the surface it’s understandably a challenge to see The Yard Social Club’s efforts in organizing train crawls, where people spend an afternoon drinking their way up and down a train line, as real advocacy; honestly, I refuse to take myself too seriously anyway. But if we can get a group of suburbanites (or Chicagoans, for that matter) to try Metra for an afternoon of exploring the suburbs in a safe, fun environment without worrying about who has to drive, maybe the suburbanites will be more willing to take Metra next time they head downtown and maybe the Chicagoans will realize there’s cool stuff to do and neat places to visit in the suburbs.

And on the flip side, these blog posts and our Star:Line Chicago outreach and advocacy is to try to start more serious conversations with riders and professionals alike to highlight opportunities for improvement. Sure, some of the suggestions are extremely esoteric with slim-to-no chance of implementation (hello, line renaming!), but we strive for pragmatic, budget-constrained solutions that ideally nudge decision-makers to stop accepting the status quo as good enough, to encourage our transportation agencies to take risks, and to be a partner for change that makes the suburbs stronger and more resilient in the face of a changing future.

Maybe I’m just naïve, thinking my silly little hobby will drive any real change, but someone has to try.

Metra tried with the BNSF schedule changes. They made a good faith effort to use the PTC rollout to try to better accommodate peak-period passenger loads, even though the overcrowding issue was staring everyone right in the face. We told Metra they needed to put a stronger effort into improving peak-of-the-peak capacity rather than trying to flatten the peak with later express trains and not overcomplicate the afternoon peak schedule with too many new stopping patterns; they politely but firmly told us to pound sand, and here we are. And yes, the new schedule is a hot mess, and yes, they’re getting dragged over the coals by their riders on social media. But Metra at least tried, which deserves some small amount of credit.

This blog doesn’t exist to pat Metra on the back – and offering the railroad suggestions for improvement is a well that will never go dry – but we will provide cover for Metra at least making an attempt, and we encourage Metra’s riders to at least try to remember there’s a real person on the receiving end of all those Facebook posts and tweets. That said, honest feedback, constructive criticism, and pictures/video of conditions onboard trains and transit are useful and illustrative. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has an entire social media campaign highlighting the inadequacies of our transportation network (#bustedcommute) in an effort to shine a light on what commuters have to deal with in light of constrained budgets and limited resources.

We support MPC’s initiative, but our mission is broader and encompasses all suburban travelers, not just commuters. Leisure riders are a huge underserved market for Metra, and it’s a lot easier to convince someone to start commuting on transit if they already have positive experiences using transit for fun.

We’re all in this together. It’s easy to throw stones at Metra, but nothing will change unless we’re willing to put some work in as well. This blog and our varioussocialmediachannels aren’t meant to just be a platform for me to get up on my soapbox, but a place to have discussions about transit or suburbia or whatever and how it can be better. (I can also routinely be found at The Junction in Union Station, if these conversations would go better over a cold Miller Lite.)

If there’s something that comes out of productive conversations we have some point in the past, present, or future that makes the job of someone at 547 W. Jackson Boulevard a little easier by offering our support for something new or something risky or something progressive, that’s why The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago exist: because we want to believe that tomorrow Metra will run faster, stretch out its arms farther… and one fine morning—

So we beat on.